Saturday, June 30, 2007

A stranger in Japan discovers liturgy

A few people have asked me to post about my time as a missionary and high school teacher (boys) in Japan, from 1981-85. It's hard to know where to start, so I'd like to begin by posting a column I wrote a few years back, in seminary, which was printed in the campus paper. For one year, I had a column, called Expectations and Visions. If people are interested, from time to time, I'll post other items as well.

"My first month in Japan was the hardest. A stranger in a strange land, I felt most of the time like I was on the verge of being lost. Streets were narrow, winding mazes, and I had no nose for direction.

"Signs were not landmarks but cryptic messages mostly undeciphered. Everything was new: the smells of skewered meat being sold on the street, the cries of vendors, the crowds of dark-haired people standing on the train, reading newspapers and magazines incomprehensible to me. Every corner I turned was a place I had not been before, an exiting but fearsome proposition.

"Wherever I got on a train, I wondered where I would end up and what it would look like when I got there. I read the map, all right; that first month I read it microscopically, clutching it like a security blanket, ever alert, unable to relax or let my guard down.

"I had come to Japan to serve god; that was the official reason. But underneath it all was a secret desire to escape the dull routine of my ordinary life in my ordinary office job, a desire to meet God in the kinds of places I had only read about in books before. In Japan even ordinary life became an adventure, and I discovered that constant new experiences were not only stimulated, but wearying.

"Sundays promised a reprieve from all the newness, for every Sunday I would go to church. In the midst of all the strange smells and sights, I entered a familiar-looking western-style building, complete with steeple, and took my place in a wooden pew. In the midst of unfamiliar words and tones, I heard "Amen" and "Alleluia," and "Jesus." No longer was I lost. I knew where I was. I was at home in the midst of the liturgy. Or was I?

"Appearances can be deceiving. Even in church, I couldn't keep up with even one petition of the Lord's prayer in Japanese. I sang the hymns intensely aware of each syllable I was reading, still not knowing what most of it meant. I listened to sermons hoping for a word I could recognize, and never finding one. Worship was more of an effort than it had ever been, and the returns were much diminished. Even getting to church was a lot of work.

"Every Sunday I took a train from my home at Meidaimae to Shibuya, transferred to a train to Hiyoshi, and walked fifteen minutes from the station at Hiyoshi to my church. The whole thing took about one hour fifteen minutes. It was quite a trip. The first week a member of the church met me at the station and we walked together. She carefully explained the way, each twist and turn of the road. I in turn paid close attention to every step, sure that I would lose my way when I would have to walk those narrow unfamiliar streets alone. I remember the first few times feeling immensely relieved when I first caught sight of the church steeple in the distance.

"But after awhile I began to relax, loosen my grip on the train map, look around me, and follow the way my feet had come to know, without even thinking about it. I had the way memorized it. I knew it by heart. It was a routine to me. It was a part of my liturgy in Japan. Imagine being excited by having a routine!

"Suddenly routine took on a new and gracious meaning for me. Rather than just dull and lifeless repetition, my routine could be liturgical. And liturgy too became more gracious. No longer did I think it merely boring routine, words pronounced automatically. Liturgy became instead the place where I could loosen my grip, take off my shoes and feel at home. It became the well-worn road to the place I knew so well. It was the "Amen" and "Alleluia" in the midst of all the cryptic messages that surrounded me. It is in this place, I discovered, and not so much in my adventures, that God comes to meet me.

"Still I seek adventures, but God seeks me, and where I least expect. In the midst of strange places and new experiences, God gives a home, a place where I can let down my guard and listen and learn. Sometimes it is a song from long ago that I have memorized, whose words I finally understand. Sometimes it is a story I have heard so many times, and for the first time now. It is called liturgy, but it doesn't happen only on Sunday morning.

"It happens to all pilgrims and sojourners as we come to recognize our path, and travel it with confidence. It is in the familiar places where our true adventures happen, as gifts of grace, given by God."

P.S. Picture was taken in front of Kyoto Lutheran church. I still know what the sign says: "Jinsei no mokuteki wa?" or "What is the purpose of life?"


Gannet Girl said...

This is wonderful. I love your discovery of routine as liturgy, as a place for encounter with the unexpected God. I hope you continue with these pieces.

Jan said...

Like Gannet Girl, I love your description of liturgy as your life. How that expands the concept of "liturgy" for me. It is especially relevant because a few days ago my massage therapist, who is a new Christian going to a non-denominational church, asked me what the word "liturgy" meant.

"Still I seek adventures, but God seeks me, and where I least expect."
I believe this. Thank you for voicing it for me.

I was living in Japan on a Naval Base twenty years before you were there. I'm sure our experiences were different, because I was in elementary school in an "American" environment. Still, I feel a connection reading about your life in Japan. I hope you'll post more about it.

mompriest said...

There is something really wonderful about routine and broken routine, which helps us appreciate routine.

Oh. and a new poem is posted...

Barbara B. said...

I enjoyed reading this! Routine as liturgy is a wonderful thought... and I really like the picture too!

Ruby said...

I hope you'll post more about your time in Japan. You're a wonderful writer, and thanks to you, my routine will feel liturgical today.

more cows than people said...

thanks, diane. yes, more please.

it reminded me of my brief sojourn in germany last year, going to church every week was a touchstone- esp the first week when i knew NO German.

Serena said...

Beautiful! Even tho' I haven't lived abroad ... the "liturgy" of the routine where "God seeks me where I least expect" says it so well. Like Jan, I thank you for voicing this. You are a great writer. More please!